At first glance, it’s hard not to be completely confused about the way the Rays are operating their ballclub now. As recently as last year, they were a team with insane starting pitching depth that was the envy of every team in baseball. Now, after trading James Shields and Wade Davis to the Kansas City Royals, they have already signed one starting pitcher, Roberto Hernandez, and then Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports sent out this tweet.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 5, 2013
Are you kidding me? The Rays are interested in Javier Vazquez, who didn’t even pitch in 2012? How the mighty have fallen! What has happened?!
Rays fans have an extremely skewed perception of Javier Vazquez. The reason for that is that in his two seasons with the Yankees, he was terrible, managing just a 5.09 ERA (87 ERA+) in 58 starts, 5 relief appearances, and 355.1 innings pitched. However, for his career, Vazquez, 36, has been pretty impressive. In his 14-year MLB career, Vazquez is 165-160 with a 4.22 ERA (106 ERA+), an 8.0 K/9, a 2.4 BB/9, and a 1.2 HR/9 (3.96 FIP) in 443 starts, 7 relief appearances, and 2840 innings pitched. Take out two horrific seasons to begin his career, and Vazquez career ERA drops to 4.04 (110 ERA+). Take out his time with the Yankees, and Vazquez has a 3.87 ERA (115 ERA+) in his other 10 major league seasons. That’s pretty darn good. Vazquez has gone over 200 innings nine times, won 15 games three times, struck out 200 five times, been an All-Star once, and even finished fourth in the NL Cy Youngvoting in 2009 when he went 15-10 with a 2.87 ERA (143 OPS+) and a ridiculous 238-41 strikeout to walk ratio 219.1 innings pitched. That 2009 season was probably the only time Vazquez ever looked like a true ace, but he has actually managed an ERA+ of 125 or higher (25% better than average) four times: 2001, 2003, 2007, and 2009. And in his last season in the major leagues in 2011, Vazquez was still a dependable starter, going 13-11 with a 3.69 ERA (106 ERA+), a 7.6 K/9, a 2.3 BB/9, and a 1.0 HR/9 in 32 starts and 192.2 IP for the Florida Marlins. This season in Puerto Rican Winter Ball, Vazquez has also pitched well, going just 1-3 but with a 3.52 ERA and a 30-6 strikeout to walk ratio in 5 starts and 23 innings pitched. As we saw above (but chose to ignore), Vazquez hit 93 MPH in his last start. Vazquez has a track record of success as a number three type starter and sometimes better, has been pitching well of late, and after a year away from baseball, he should be available at a very reasonable price. How could several teams not be interested in signing him?
The Rays’ starting rotation is still pretty darn good. You have a true ace in David Price at the top followed by Jeremy Hellickson, who has actually led Rays starters in ERA the last two seasons at 3.02 and made major strides with his curveball in 2012, Matt Moore, who was inconsistent his rookie year but flashed dominance and has unbelievable potential, Alex Cobb, who has a chance to be a good number four starter for years to come with his good sinker and split-change, and then one of Jeff Niemann, the aforementioned Roberto Hernandez, and Chris Archer. The Rays’ rotation is going to be up among the best in baseball again next year as long as Hellickson can keep going strong with the help of a third plus pitch in his curve and Moore can take a step forward in his development. There’s no guarantee of that, but if Hellickson blossoms into a true number two type and Moore goes David Price 2010 by following up a tough rookie year with a Cy Young worthy second season, the Rays will actually have traded their most reliable pitcher in James Shields yet improved their rotation significantly. The Rays don’t need another starting pitcher. So why did the Rays sign Hernandez, and for 3.25 million dollars plus incentives no less? First off, as we wrote about before, Hernandez has the potential to be a whole lot more than a back-of-the-rotation type of pitcher, potentially fitting in as a number three or better starter or shutdown late-inning reliever. Secondly, it allows them to potentially trade Niemann if he can prove himself healthy in spring training which would be a good move because Niemann has less upside and just as much risk because of his injury issues the past several years. And thirdly, the Rays love having starting pitching depth, which gives them insurance when pitchers unfortunately but inevitably get injured and also allows them to give a pitcher like Archer more time at Triple-A if they so desire or a move to the bullpen if they feel that’s the best fit for him moving forward. 3.25 million dollars may be a lot of money by Rays standards, but it’s still well below the going rate for an average or better major league starter and signing him accomplishes a lot of different things for them.
What have we talked about here? We’ve said that Javier Vazquez is a good pitcher and the Rays have a good and maybe even great rotation potentially made even better by the signing of Roberto Hernandez. Those are both nice things, but doesn’t the latter make the Rays’ interest in Vazquez pretty nonsensical? If the Rays were going to sign Vazquez, why would they have signed Hernandez? They don’t need a starting pitcher at all anymore. But maybe that’s exactly the point. If the Rays were to sign Vazquez to a reasonable contract, say right around what Hernandez got, this would be their 12-man pitching staff (let’s assume that Niemann would be traded).
SP1- David Price
SP2- Jeremy Hellickson
SP3- Matt Moore
SP4- Alex Cobb
SP5- Javier Vazquez
CL- Fernando Rodney
SU- Joel Peralta
LMR- Jake McGee
MR- Roberto Hernandez
MR- Chris Archer
LMR/LR- Cesar Ramos
Last Spot- Alexander Torres/Brandon Gomes/Josh Lueke/Dane De La Rosa
It would be awfully hard to find a staff in baseball as good as that with an amazingly deep rotation and a bullpen with absolutely electric arms occupying 5 of 7 spots (make it 6 if you like Ramos enough) and even a group of guys for last spot who all have interesting potential. And then you can also consider that the Rays might sign another bullpen arm to make that look even more impressive. The Rays don’t need to sign a pitcher like Javier Vazquez- but if they did, it would certainly make an already strong staff even scarier for the opposition.
There are plenty of questions still to be answered before the Rays make a serious pitch to sign Javier Vazquez. Do they think he can still be an effective pitcher? Can he hold up for an entire major league season? Are his salary demands reasonable? However, if they receive the right answers to all their questions, we may just see the Rays sign a second free agent starting pitcher this offseason after not signing one to a major league contract since the year 2000. Is it a move the Rays need to make? No, it’s not, but that doesn’t matter. If the Rays think it can improve their team, they’ll do whatever they can to make it happen.